SMS Schleswig-Holstein served in World War 1 and fired the opening salvos against Poland in World War 2.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB and Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was a storied vessel of the German Navy that managed to survive all of World War 1 and fight on through most of World War 2 before being sunk in 1944. For her time, the vessel exhibited tremendous speed and firepower that made for strong qualities on the volatile and unforgiving high seas. Unfortunately for the class, the arrival of the British Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought quickly out shown the limitations in the now-dubbed "Pre-Dreadnought" group of fighting ships. Nevertheless, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein participated in several notable actions throughout her long sea-going tenure and became the last of the pre-Dreadnought class of battleships built due to the arrival of the famed British vessel.
The British HMS Dreadnought Changes Everything
The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was of the Deutschland-class of surface battleships and categorized as a "Pre-dreadnought" battleship. Pre-dreadnought battleships replaced the old ironclad warships fielded up to that time and Pre-Dreadnoughts themselves existed during a short span from the 1890s up to 1905. These warships were primarily armed with a variety of guns and were powered by coal-fed steam engines. The arrival of the British Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought in 1906 essentially created a new class of fighting surface ship - known simply as "Dreadnought" - for her use of extensive armor protection, steel understructure, large uniformed main gun armament and new steam turbine technology. This warship alone outclassed all other battleships of her era and gave rise to the term "Pre-Dreadnought" to signify those preceding class of warships. The HMS Dreadnought was therefore credited with singlehandedly revolutionizing surface naval warfare upon her inception and other national navy's would have to race to build equal-class ships in response.
SMS Schleswig-Holstein Construction
The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was ordered on June 11th, 1904 with construction of the vessel charged to the Germaniawerft shipbuilding company of Kiel, Germany. The company would become best known for all types of warships, merchant sea-going platforms and U-boat submarines for the German Kaiserliche and Kriegsmarine. Her keel was laid down on August 18th, 1905 and she was officially launched over a year later on December 17th, 1906. After her shakedown cruise and evaluation period, her commissioning took place on July 6th, 1908. The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was named after the northernmost state of Germany and the vessel existed as the fifth of five ships of the Deutschland-class that included sisters SMS Deutschland (also lead ship), SMS Hannover, SMS Pommenn and SMS Schlesien. All were launched between 1904 and 1906. Of all her sisters, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein proved the fastest, clocked at 19.1 knots against the 18.5 to 18.7 knots managed by her siblings. At the time of her construction, the vessel cost German taxpayers 24,972,000 Marks to complete, also making her the most expensive of her five sisters by a few hundred Marks.
SMS Schleswig-Holstein Walk-Around
Externally, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein was of a conventional profile and arrangement. Her super structure consisted of two major parts, one held forward and the other aft. At amidships there stood three smoke funnels releasing the smokey wastes of the engines under deck. The bridge was held in the forward-most structural emplacement as were pertinent communications and sighting towers. The forward deck was rather featureless, dominated by a forward main gun installation. "Casement" guns were fitted on either side of the hull. These guns offered additional firepower but were situated in limited traverse emplacements close to the waterline, limiting their practical and tactical usefulness in battle. There was a second main gun turret installed at the stern. Such an armament arrangement ensured that the SMS Schleswig-Holstein could bring about all of her large gun complement to bear against an enemy vessel in a full broadside attack. Her crew consisted of 35 officers as well as 708 enlisted personnel. The SMS Schleswig-Holstein showcased armor across her design and fielded a belt of 100 to 240mm in thickness while her turrets were covered over in 280mm of armor plating. Her deck was given 40mm of protection.
SMS Schleswig-Holstein Original Armament
At the time of her final construction, her armament formally consisted of 4 x 11" (28cm) SK L/40 main guns across two turrets (two guns to a turret). This was backed by no fewer than 14 x 6.7" casemated cannons, a further 22 x 3.5" casemated cannons as well as 6 x 18" torpedo tubes. All served the vessel well when combating most enemy surface threats though her guns could also be brought to bear against shoreline fortifications if need be. Interestingly, the Deutschland-class battleship lacked in the way of medium-ranged guns common to her contemporaries - her primary arms being of the long and short range quality.
SMS Schleswig-Holstein Propulsion
The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was propelled by no less than twelve boilers which fed three triple expansion steam engines, themselves powering three propeller shafts. This allowed the vessel to make headway at up to 19 knots while reaching distances as far out as 4,800 nautical miles (this at a cruise speed of 10 knots). Her overall length measured in at 418 feet, 8 inches with a beam (width) running 72 feet, 10 inches and her draught being 26 feet, 11 inches. The SMS Schleswig-Holstein normally displaced at 13,200 tons but this could be driven up some 1,000 additional tons for a "full" load during wartime.
The SMS Schleswig-Holstein in World War 1
During World War 1, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein served with the II Squadron High Seas Fleet. She participated in the famous Battle of Jutland from May 31st, 1916 to June 1st, 1916. The battle consisted of the British Royal Navy's Grand Fleet against the German High Seas Fleet with the battle taking place near Jutland, Denmark in the east North Sea. The battle sought to settle control of the vital North Sea waterway and called upon over one hundred ships from both sides to participate. The Germans entered the fray with the overall plan to destroy a good portion of the committed British fleet and continue unrestricted submarine warfare throughout the region thereafter when, at this time, there would be a lesser threat posed by the limited Royal Navy.
The battle ultimately involved 28 Royal Navy battleships against 16 German battleships as well as "lesser" vessels and all five of the Deutschland-class would participate. The two sides went to work and ensuing actions resulted in over 6,000 British personnel killed and over 500 wounded while the Germans suffered over 2,500 casualties with over 500 wounded. Sister ship SMS Pommern was hit - resulting in a detonation of one of her magazine stores - by a British torpedo launched from the HMS Onslaught (originally thought to be the HMS Faulknor) and sunk with all 839 souls aboard. The SMS Schleswig-Holstein herself was slightly damaged by an enemy shell but lived to fight another day.
Despite the grand show of force from these two naval powerhouses, the battle was formally concluded as "inconclusive" and the North Sea was still in play for the Triple Entente. While it was the British that suffered most quantitatively, the Germans did not meet their planned battle goals which, in true wartime fashion, left both the British and the Germans promoting their own separate outcomes of the battle as complete victory for the respective side. The naval battle would go down in history as the largest naval battle of the First World War and, interestingly enough, none of the participating battleships were lost in the melee.
After the battle, SMS Schleswig-Holstein faced a period of much-needed repairs before being put back out to sea. She entered combat waters once more in early 1917 and served in the role until May 2nd of that year, now facing decommissioning from active service. In August of 1917, she was rearranged as an "accommodation ship" for service personnel and was based at Bremerhaven before finally being relocated to Kiel in 1918 where she served out her tenure until the end of the war in November. Of the five ships in her class, only four survived the whole of the war and only three of these were allowed to continue service with the German Navy under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. SMS Schleswig-Holstein was joined by SMS Schlesien and SMS Hannover while the SMS Deutschland was selected for the scrapman's torch in 1922. A modernization program was then enacted throughout the 1920s that saw the SMS Schleswig-Holstein upgraded and furthermore promoted to flagship of the rebuilding German Navy. She held that post from 1926 to 1935.
By 1939, an armament refit had brought about some changes to the decks of the SMS Schleswig-Holstein in preparation for Hitler's world war with the rest of Europe. Her 4 x 11" SK L/40 main guns remained intact but she lost all of her casemated 6.7" cannons. Only 2 x 3.5" cannons remained of the original twenty-two installed though these were no longer in limited casemates and 4 x 1.5" cannons were added. A further 22 x 20mm anti-aircraft cannons were fitted for a lethal network air defense system and her six 18" torpedo tubes were removed in full. Despite their inherently outdated designs, the remaining Deutschland-class warships were still of some value based on armament and speed. As such, they made for serviceable bombardment platforms and would be utilized as such in World War 2. The SMS Schleswig-Holstein was credited with firing the first salvo that officially began World War 2 - this occurring on September 1st, 1939 against Polish fortifications near Danzig off of the Baltic Sea (today known as Gdansk, Poland).
With Captain Gustav Kleikamp in command of SMS Schleswig Holstein, she and her sister ship, SMS Schlesien, were on a planned visit to the nation of Poland. This subterfuge was meant to honor German sailors killed on the cruiser Magdeburg back in World War 1 and were buried in Danzig in 1914. The Magdeburg had run aground near the Odensholm lighthouse in the Baltic Sea. Efforts to refloat her ultimately failed and the Russian cruisers Bogatyr and Pallada appeared and utterly destroyed her, killing off most of her crew in the process.
Schleswig Holstein and her small flotilla had anchored in Danzig harbour at the mouth of the River Vistula. At 4.30am on September 1st, 1939, she weighed anchor and moved down the canal, taking up a position opposite the Polish fort at Westerplatte. SMS Schlesien and the accompanying gunboats remained to protected the mouth of the harbor. The plan of German High Command proposed the SMS Schleswig Holstein with her 11-inch guns at point blank range against the forts while Captain Kleikamp, at 4.47am, gave the formal order to open fire on the Westerplatte in the name of Adolf Hitler. Germany's first shot fired by the SMS Schleswig Holstein of World War 2 in Europe was exactly 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last recorded shot was fired in World War 1. World War 2 in Europe had officially begun.
The bombardment of the fort was joined by Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bombers of the German Luftwaffe and the few Polish garrison defenders were additionally attacked by larger numbers of German ground troops. The battle lasted for seven days before the Polish commander surrendered (though the fort was never truly taken by the German troops). In the first few weeks of the ensuing World War, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein and the SMS Schlesien bombarded other Polish positions in Gdynia, Kepa Oksywska, and the Hel Peninsula.
Death of the SMS Schleswig-Holstein
The remaining Deutschland-class battleships were returned to training duty following the German occupation of Norway in 1940. SMS Schleswig-Holstein became an anti-aircraft platform in 1944 stationed at Gdynia to protect the port from enemy air attacks. There she would berth until the end of her tenure in the war for, being a stationary target now, she was attacked by aircraft of the Royal Air Force on December 18th, 1944, that resulted in the death of twenty-eight of her crew. The RAF attacked once again and scored several direct hits with aerial bombs, leaving her a burning wreck on the water. She finally sank in 39 feet of water near the port on March 21st, 1945. The war in Europe ended in May.
After World War 2, she was raised by the Soviet Union and towed to the Russian port of Tallinn where she was believed to be renamed to "Borodino". The Soviet Navy scuttled Borodino in shallow water near Osmussaar Island in the Baltic Sea sometime in 1948 and she was used as a target ship until 1964. Decades later, the remains of the ship came under the protection of the Estonian National Heritage Board as a "historic shipwreck" which has been her title since 2006.
The battleship Schleswig Holstein served Germany in both world wars and was the single instrument used to begin the Second World War. A conflict, by some reports, that claimed the lives of over 60 million people. It is doubtful that this number reflects all the peoples in all of the far corners of the world where records were, at best, dubious. Nevertheless, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein earned her due respect and legacy - even though she finished her career not in the service that her builders originally intended.